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Indonesian courts sink low while the judges get high

Should Indonesian ever launch a campaign to legalize drugs, they couldn't ask for a better champion to lead their movement than a judge. Perhaps even a couple of them!

Puji Wiryanto, a judge from the district court in Bekasi, a satellite town of Jakarta, was arrested earlier this month by the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) while having a karaoke and drug party with two lawyer friends and four escorts at a place appropriately called Illigals Hotel and Club in West Jakarta. (The photo above shows Indonesian judges in their more typical august surroundings, during a recent terrorism trial.)

Puji reserved his singing talents for the interrogation room: He claimed he is not the only judge in town to do drugs. While not mentioning names, he said all the alleged drug-users were serving judges in district courts in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city.

The Supreme Court, which administers and oversees judges, quickly denied his claim and stressed that Puji is the only bad apple in the batch. The court has suspended Puji pending the results of the police investigation.

However, the Judicial Commission, a government body responsible as the main watchdog for the country's judiciary, begged to differ. Its preliminary inquiry following Puji's arrest and disclosure revealed there may be five other judges using drugs; the commission later said it is now investigating 10 suspected judges.

The reputation of the judiciary -- the nation's bastion of justice -- has taken a major beating in the past due to corruption scandals.

In August, two judges of the anti-corruption court in Semarang in Central Java were caught red-handed by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) accepting bribes in connection with a case they were trying. It was later learned that the two judges were serving on the same panel that acquitted six defendants in previous corruption cases.

This latest drug scandal is bound to drag public opinion of the judiciary even lower, especially coming after a series of controversial government decisions to commute the harsh sentences of convicted drug offenders. A woman whose death sentence was commuted to life by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2011 was recently discovered to be running a drug ring from inside prison.

The recent arrests of drug smugglers suggest that Indonesia has become a lucrative target for drug trafficking despite the threat of the death penalty. Many traffickers were given the maximum sentence, but none have yet been executed because of the complex and lengthy appeals process. The few who did complete the appeals process, such as the woman caught dealing from inside the prison, received reduced sentences.

The government tried to downplay Puji's arrest, appealing to the public not to be overly judgmental of him. "A judge is just like other ordinary people. We can understand if the judiciary also has some officials using drugs," said Law and Human Rights Minister Amir Syamsudin.

The public has become accustomed to stories of police officers caught with drugs: Now they are also expected to accept judges using drugs as normal. This says a lot about the national commitment to fight the drug menace.

At least some people are trying to shore up public confidence in the judiciary. In Depok, another satellite town of Jakarta, the district court requires all judges to undergo regular urine tests, and the National Narcotics Agency says it is introducing mandatory random urine tests for judges across the country.

It is imperative that the reputation of the courts not sink any lower.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Weary Venezuela voters gear up for their next election

After an intense political season culminating in Hugo Chávez's reelection last month, Venezuela's voters are now set to head back to the polls on December 16 to elect state governors and state legislatures. Many voters seem to be wondering, though, whether the whole thing matters.

Venezuela is, in theory, a federal state. All state and local authorities are elected. State and local governments have their own legislatures that pass their own budgets.

Federalism, however, has its limits -- some imposed by the constitution, and some imposed by Hugo Chávez.

The Venezuelan Constitution mandates that twenty percent of the federal budget should go to state governments, who then must hand over twenty percent of their income to local governments. Budgets are roughly distributed across states according to their population, which means the relative size of a state determines the size of the budget the governor is in charge of.

In spite of this mandate, states are limited in their ability to raise funds on their own, and they are forbidden from issuing debt.

In theory, state governments should be enjoying their fair share of Venezuela's oil boom. In practice, Hugo Chávez has severely limited the size of the federal budget by purposefully assuming ridiculously low oil prices, which ensures that all "unanticipated" extra income goes directly to funds he manages with zero oversight.

In spite of this, state budgets are large enough to allow opposition governors to implement public policies, and a few of them are actually worth mentioning. Miranda governor (and unsuccessful presidential candidate) Henrique Capriles has focused on schools with innovative multi-purpose architecture. Zulia governor Pablo Pérez has a voucher system for university scholarships. In spite of this, Hugo Chávez has stripped state governments of many of their powers, limiting opposition politicians' scope of action.

Looking at just the political aspects, state governments give opposition party politicians two things that are vital for relevance in Venezuela: visibility and a get-out-the-vote machine. State governments are filled with large bureaucracies, which can be turned into impromptu "volunteers" to fill up rallies or help get out the vote. The advantages these incumbents enjoy are more relevant here than in most democracies.

Having said this -- what are the likely scenarios?

Venezuela's opposition is still licking its wounds after losing to Hugo Chávez by ten points in the presidential election on October 7. Only eight of the country's twenty-three governors are from the opposition, but in the recent presidential election, Capriles carried only two states. He even lost his home state of Miranda -- albeit by only a fraction of a percent.

Given the feeling of helplessness in the opposition's ranks, it is no stretch to imagine Hugo Chávez going 23-for-23 on December 16. That, however, seems unlikely.

The opposition could have a decent night if they retain five high-profile offices: Zulia, Miranda, Táchira, Carabobo, and Lara. All five states have big populations, and they are currently governed by men representing five different factions of the opposition coalition. Failure to hold any of them would be a serious setback.

On the other hand, if they were to pick up Aragua, the eastern state of Anzoátegui, or retain Monagas, they could be allowed to gloat. All three states are large, and they went for Hugo Chávez last month.

For chavismo, winning anything less than the twenty-one states Chávez carried a month ago would cast serious doubts on his party’s ability to win elections without him. The lingering effect of Chávez’s victory would suggest a landslide for the president’s candidates. However, the bond between Venezuelans and their leader does not easily translate to local leadership, and even more so when many of chavismo’s candidates were hand-picked without regard for local leaders’ opinions.

Ultimately, it is hard to shake the feeling that the stakes are low. Both opposition and pro-Chávez voters viewed the October 7 poll as the definitive battle. As hard as they try, politicians from all sides are struggling to provide a rationale as to why this particular election still matters. After chavismo’s “perfect victory,” it’s hard to dispel the notion that they are playing for scraps.

Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/GettyImages